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Psalm 44

Face down in the dirt

We can easily slip into a sort of dull stoicism when grappling with why God allows us to suffer despite our loyalty to and dependence on him. But this is just where honesty with God is needed most.

A descendants of Korah psalm.

O God, we’ve heard it ourselves—
the story our ancestors relayed to us
of what you did in their day, long, long ago.
How you dispossessed nations by your power
and planted our ancestors in the land.
Suppressing their enemies
you made our ancestors flourish.
Not by their swords
did they take possession of the land
nor did their strength bring them victory.
No, it was your hand on them
your strength in them
and the light of your face streaming down on them
for you delighted in them.
You’re my King, my God:
you command victories for Jacob.
Only by your power do we gore our enemies
only through you do we trample our foes.
I don’t trust in my bow
nor do I think my sword will save me.
You’re the one
who gives us victory over our enemies
humbling those who hate us.
We constantly praise your name, God
and boast about you nonstop.

Yet you’ve spurned us and humiliated us
and no longer lead our armies to battle.
10 You make us run from our enemies
and those who hate us plunder us.
11 You’ve turned us over like sheep to be eaten
and scattered us among the nations.
12 You’ve sold your people for a pittance
making nothing on the sale.
13 You’ve made us a joke to our neighbors
an object of derision and sneering
14 a joke to everyone around
so they shake their heads at the sight of us.
15 With “shame” tattooed across our foreheads
we live in constant disgrace
16 thanks to the taunts of vengeful enemies
who berate and revile us nonstop.
17 And all this has happened
even though we haven’t forgotten you
or violated your covenant.
18 Our hearts never turned back
our feet never left your path.
19 Yet you’ve crushed us in this haunt of jackals
shrouded us in Death’s dark gloom.
20 If we’d forgotten God’s name
or spread our hands in prayer to foreign gods
21 wouldn’t God have found out
since he knows the secrets of every heart?
22 No, it’s on account of you
that we’re being killed all day long—
consigned as sheep to slaughter.

23 Wake up! Why do you sleep, Lord?
Get up—don’t reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face from us
ignoring our suffering and oppression
25 as we lie here, prostrate on the ground
face down in the dirt?
26 Get up! Help us!
Redeem us for the sake of your covenant love!

Like Job of old, the psalmist grapples with undeserved suffering. In flashbacks, he sees Israelite soldiers fleeing their oppressors and lying broken, if not dead, on the battlefield. He sees his people plundered at will, sold for a song, scattered among the nations, heading like sheep to the slaughter, lying disgraced in the dirt—and ridiculed all the while.

This doesn’t compute because the covenant set these disasters out as punishments God would inflict on its violators—which they’re not, as God knows. They don’t rely on themselves: they know God gave their ancestors the land and that, without him, they can’t defend it. And they praise God for all he’s done. But despite their faithfulness, their divine Commander has spurned them.

The psalmist sets out half of the problem: God cares deeply and is all-powerful, yet he lets his people suffer unjustly. The other half he implies: the God of Jacob isn’t an idol we control—doesn’t jump when we say, “Jump!” How then will God respond? The psalmist offers no easy answers. But instead of drawing back, he leans in, crying out to the God he knows is himself the answer, though he doesn’t understand how.

Lord, all my best efforts are useless unless you grant me success. Where, then, can I turn when I suffer exile and dispossession? To you alone. Wake up and see my plight! Why subject me to more ridicule? Redeem me for the sake of your unfailing love, I pray. Amen.

In your free moments today, pray this prayer:

You’re my King, my God: you command victories for Jacob!

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.